The Soapbox: Native leaders must eschew symbolic gestures for progress

Justin Crann
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Earlier this week, an aboriginal man came to the Times-Herald newsroom to discuss the Idle No More movement and the plight of his people. By virtue of the fact I was the only reporter who wasn’t juggling several assignments, I sat down to listen to what he had to say.

“They’re taking away our treaty rights ... they are trying to extinguish our rights and take our land,” the man told me. “We’re ready to go to war.”

The man’s rhetoric is not new. Over the past several weeks, we have heard threats about the prospect of blockades. We have seen some of those threats turn into realities.

We’ve seen non-violent rallies and peaceful protests across the country and some have even spilled across the border into the United States.

At it’s heart, the Idle No More movement has noble goals: to address the issues that have plagued Canada’s First Nations people for decades, to establish a nation-to-nation relationship between the First Nations and Canadian government, and to encourage more sustainable legislation in future.

But the flaw with the movement lies in it’s core mentality and it’s poor execution.

Hunger striking Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence unsurprisingly lies at the heart of many of Idle No More’s problems.

Seen as the de facto leader of the movement, Spence has been the focal point for media outlets, protesters and government officials. Her strike has been a high profile symbol of the Idle No More movement, and that has, in turn, resulted in her becoming the subject of a great deal of scrutiny.

Part of that scrutiny was an audit, released this past week, of the Attawapiskat reserve and the handling of funds given to it by the federal government.

The results of the audit revealed a lack of supporting documentation for expenses and called to question the overall accountability of the Attawapiskat administration, including Chief Spence.

In essence, the audit provided critics of the Idle No More movement with the ammunition they needed to take pot shots, questioning the validity of the protests and creating unnecessary additional hurdles for the protesters, who at the heart of the matter are raising some important questions about key issues that have long gone unaddressed.

Spence’s demands, too, need redressing. In particular, her expectation of a meeting with Governor General David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper — and her mistaken belief that Johnston can effect change for the good of the Aboriginal People — are unrealistic.

In theory, yes, the Governor General is the representative of the British monarchy and is our head of state. In practice, however, that is mere formality; the real power lies in the Office of the Prime Minister.

Put simply, Johnston’s attendance at a meeting with the First Nations is completely unnecessary: it would be an entirely symbolic gesture.

Another complaint that the natives have with respect to the meeting is that Harper has said he will not be present for the discussion in its entirety.

But this is not uncommon. There are plenty of deals, discussions and diplomatic missions that are executed without the presence of the prime minister. Often, Harper delegates a minister with the appropriate portfolio to handle discussions with representatives of other countries.

This is sensible. As any good handyman would tell you, it is vital to use the appropriate tool for the job.

The Aboriginal Peoples want to sit down and discuss their issues employing a nation-to-nation model, but Spence — and several other native leaders — refuse to behave as a nation might, in dealing with ministers aside from the prime minister to hash out mutually beneficial agreements, and then formalizing them with Harper when an agreement is brokered.

Refusing to sit down for a meeting over sybolism and formality is shortsighted, and sheds light on a shocking stubbornness among the First Nations chiefs, while their people continue to live in a state of abject poverty.

There are real issues at the heart of Idle No More and they do need to be addressed with joint action between the leaders of the First Nations and Harper’s administration.

But that is not possible while many of the leaders who must be at the table for discussions refuse to sit at it.

Organizations: First Nations

Geographic location: Attawapiskat, United States, Canada

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